GARDEN CITY, NY – Though cold winds blew and hot water ran deep, an exhausted Chris Lange survived both to win the 99th Walter J. Travis Invitational at fabled Garden City Golf Club. After losing a 3-up lead, and finding trouble seemingly everywhere on the back nine, Lange, who hails from Bryn Mawr, Pa., birdied the final two holes to defeat Brooklyn attorney Joel Lulla 2&0, in a match that saw both competitors battle with fatigue and the blustery conditions.
“We were both tired, and we were struggling,” Lange explained, “I lost my swing and my putting stroke on the back nine, but I managed to hit one good shot and one good putt late, when I needed.”
Lange had built a 3-up lead after three holes with mere pars, and held that lead as they turned, but wild drives and three-putts erased the margin by the fifteenth tee. Still tied with Lulla at the par-5 seventeenth, Lange hit an 18-degree hybrid to 25-feet, then two putted for birdie and a 1-up lead going to the home hole. After playing to the safest part of the green – back right – he rolled in a twisting twenty-five foot putt and claimed the replica Schenectady putter and crystal trophy that go to the winner of the tournament known affectionately as “The Grand Old Amateur.”
“It actually leaked on me a bit, and I pushed it,” Lange said, “I was downwind and between 5 and 6-iron, and I chose five, and hit it long and right. But it turned out that I only needed a two-putt to win, so I put a good free stroke on the birdie putt and it went in.” As the ball disappeared, a clearly exhausted and relieved Lange extended his arms, looked skyward in thanks, and then turned to salute the gallery who exploded into thunderous applause as he, for the second day, the diminutive real estate broker closed the afternoon’s play with fireworks. Lange eagled the first hole in a playoff against Peter Zurkow to end play the previous day.
“This was surprising to say the least,” a grateful Lange reflected during his acceptance speech. “I went from a +3 to a scratch in the last few months, and I haven’t won anything in match play in a long time. But I love coming here – more-so because the tournament is always around my anniversary, on the 19th – so I bring my wife.” The couple spent one night in the famous Garden City Hotel, which overlooks the golf course, and two nights at the SoHo Grand in Manahattan.
“I had never stayed the Garden City Hotel before, even though we’ve heard so much about it for so many years,” he continued. “Well, after my practice round, I went over to check in to the hotel, and walked onto the condominiums instead,” he finished, as the entire gallery chuckled appreciatively, then raised their glasses gave a rousing, stout-hearted cheer salute their newly-minted champion.
It was not just Lange’s anniversary; Sunday was the 110th anniversary of the founding of Garden City Golf Club, “The Grand Old Club” as she is known to her friends and to golf historians, and the golf course – designed to play like a links, with it’s sandy soil, fickle winds, perpendicular hazards, and length fescue – stiffened in the rugged weather.
It was a day casual golfers might lament, but true links golfers relished. A leaden-slate sky extended across the horizon of a windswept Hempstead Plain, and granite-grey clouds hung low in the heavens. The howl of the wind rose and fell whole octaves over the course of the day, putting a premium on strategy, patience, and endurance. It would test the competitors mentally and physically to the utmost.
In fact, both the 54-year-old Lange and the 51-year old Lulla were drained already. On Friday, they both fired even-par rounds or better just to get into the 16-player championship bracket of the tournament. Then they survived two match play rounds the day previously against difficult draws just to get into the semi-finals. Lulla had to defeat two former Travis champions, and Lange had to beat pre-tournament favorite Kevin Hammer in the morning, and play extra holes to win his afternoon match. Then both played long Sunday morning matches before the final. Lange outlasted Roger Hoit 2&1, Lulla defeated Hunter Semels 1 up.
“I’m tired,” Lange admitted to Lulla, as the two sat down for lunch in the club’s dining room before their afternoon duel. “It’s a good thing this course is easy to walk. If it were hilly, it would be tough. I’m not getting any younger,” he confided in between bites of a chicken salad sandwich.
“I’m tired too,” Lulla responded, as he dug into one of course icon Chef Tony’s signature dishes, homespun meatloaf with gravy and mashed potatoes. “It’s a long tournament, but of all the places we could be, this is one of my absolute favorites,” he finished triumphantly. “This is a terrific place, and I’m so grateful to get a chance to compete here.”
Lange agreed. The two then traded stories of all the great courses they have played – Pine Valley, Merion, Bayonne, Sebonack, Lahinch – the list was endless, but both of them praised Garden City just as favorably. They were genuinely grateful to be at Garden City once more, all the better as finalists for the Travis. For amateur players, the Travis is one of the crown jewels in the American amateur golf diadem.
They also both revere Garden City not only for its ancient golf splendor as a course, and its storied history as a club, but also because they recognize how altruistic the members are, and how successfully the members protect, promote, and celebrate all the history and tradition built over 110 years.
“They put ego aside here for the greater good,” said Lange, a silver fox, who many people hailed as the spitting image of Gary Player, from his short, thin stature, to his rugged good looks, to his beautiful, fluid, downright languid swing.
“That’s right,” agreed Lulla, who being tall and lanky, looks a little like a young John Garrity of Sports Illustrated fame. “They all understand that they are part of a team and a family, and every time you come here you just get swept up in that good feeling.”
Lulla’s good feelings may have momentarily faded shortly into the match, as Lange won the first three holes with pars. “I played raggedly, right from the opening,” said Lulla who three-putted twice in that stretch. “It was a combination of nerves and fatigue.”
Things didn’t get better for Lulla. Even as Lange began to fritter away his advantage, Lulla couldn’t find consistency in his swing or putting stoke. Lange gave Lulla the 10th hole with a three-putt bogey to leave the Brooklyn attorney only 2-down, but Lulla missed a cast-iron chance at eleven when the players halved with disgraceful bogeys. “What a pillow fight that was,” Lulla laughed afterwards.
Lulla won 12 with a routine par, and when Lange drove into deep rough left of thirteen and couldn’t clear the cross-bunker with his second, Lulla was one smooth 70-yard wedge to the green away from drawing even. Instead, he chunked it, he hit it fat and well short of the green. They halved again with a bogey. After Lulla birdied 14 to draw even, players halved 15 and 16 to set the stage for Lange’s late heroics.
Lange attributed his victory to a minor adjustment to his set-up. “I was holding the club too tightly, and as a result, was closing the face on my backswing,” he explained. It was his 25-year-old son, like his father, a Georgetown University alumnus, who recommended the tip. “I finally started hitting the ball well at the right time.”
But that’s how to survive the gauntlet of talent at the Travis, and the precise examination in golf that is Garden City. In match play, it’s “survive and advance.” There’s going to be ups and downs. You don’t have to play well all weekend. You just have to hit the right shot in the clutch. “Everyone is going to hit a bad somewhere along the line, and with the defenses Garden City has, like the wind and high rough, the penalty can be severe,” said pro emeritus Gil McNally, who has served the club for thirty-five years.
Indeed, Garden City makes a great match play course because there are so many holes that are “half-par holes,” where you can easily make a birdie or a double bogey with one swing. This year’s championship match turned on 17 – the short, but dangerously defended par-5 in the august shadow of the spire of St. Paul’s Church. When Lange hit the green in two, but Lulla didn’t and failed to get up and down, Lange finally had regained control of the momentum, another crucial element of match play golf, but one that is so fleeting at Garden City, because fortunes can change on every shot. No lead is safe at Garden City, not even 3-up, as Lange found out.
Even though 110 years have passed, Garden City is still as cunning a test of golf as it when the giants of the game designed her a century ago. One of the greatest reasons is that the members reject the temptation to draw television crews and major championships, and instead offer the golf world a glimpse into what it was like to compete in a tournament begun in golf’s Golden Age, but which is still relevant to what golf means to the everyman today. Competitors in the Travis are like you and me: they return to their offices, jobs, lawn mowing, and neighborhoods. Chris Lange is a commercial real estate agent, not a touring pro with an endorsement deal. But for this one week, the players here walk among the ghosts of centuries past, and create memories that will last long into the future.
Some rich men say they love golf, but then try to build overpriced shrines to themselves in the name of drawing a major championship. Their love of golf is in their hearts, but never in their actions. They think the game is a pedestal upon which they can stand to promote their own glory, privilege, and station. But the great thing about the members at Garden City is that they understand their station exists to serve the greater glory and traditions of golf, and their work serves as a pedestal to exalt the virtue of the game and rejoice the glory of Travis’s nameâ€¦and Emmet’sâ€¦and each great champion the club has produced.
That’s the real beauty of Garden City, The Travis Invitational, and Travis’s precious legacy – The Grand Old Club, The Grand Old Man, and The Grand Old Amateur – as a living time capsule of golf, you can see for yourself what ardent golfers have seen for centuries. All the beauty of your greatest golf dreams is preserved, celebrated, and promoted here. Now Chris Lange becomes another link in that eternal chain.
The other winners in the various flights of the 99th Walter J. Travis Invitational were:
(Seeds in parenthesis)
Devereux Emmet Flight
Greg Rolff (12) over Jed Raynor (2) 4&2
C.B. Macdonald Flight
Curt Coulter (4) over Hal Berman (3) in 22 holes. (After missing the first fairway of the day, Coulter hit 17 in a row to close the day.)
Robert Trent Jones Flight
Dan Goldstein (2) over Pat Kelly, Jr. (5) 5&4
William H. Taft Cup
Ed “Scissorhands” Gibstein (3) over Ken Cohen (1) 5&4. (Gibstein also won his flight last year and won his semi-final match this year by a whopping 7&5, the largest margin of the event.
Eisenhower Cup (Senior Legends)
Kevin Foster (1) over John Powers (6) 3&2